Duke Roufus might be the most innovative striking coach in mixed martial arts today. He may also be the most underrated. Either way, he's embracing and refashioning an idea that jiu-jitsu players and many wrestlers already knew: the cage in MMA can be used offensively to enhance or adapt existing technique. The difference for Roufus? He's using it for strikers.
Under the tutelage of Duke Roufus, strikers are beginning to integrate the cage into their technical arsenal. Without talking to Roufus (I've been trying to make contact, so if you're reading this please get back to me, Duke), it's hard to know the exact origin, but we have two kicks to consider.
First, Alan Belcher used his back foot to propel himself off of the cage directly into a superman punch that landed with authority on the face of Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 100. Without use of the cage a fighter can still generate significant force, but using the cage adds velocity, speed, elevation and for now, the element of surprise.
Then there's Anthony Pettis, another Duke Roufus-trained fighter. We all were witnesses to one of the most thrilling and awe-inspiring techniques ever used in a MMA fight. I don't fully understand the set up, but it appears as Henderson moves laterally against the fence, the kick is used to achieve elevation, create an angle on the moving opposition and for now, employ the element of surprise. If you're never expecting it and you've never seen it, it's awfully hard to prepare. Note Henderson's hands were completely down when the kick landed.
It's not clear whether or not strikers will be able to take advantage of the cage as much as wrestlers. While Roufus' tactics clearly can work, they're also being brought to life by superb athletes who naturally gravitate to striking. it's not clear a Randy Couture or Demian Maia would ever need or be able to make as much use of it as a standard guard pass or double jab to uppercut combination. For now it's what I call a luxury technique: nice to have, flashy to look at, definitely effective, but out of reach for most and not necessary to own.
Still, Roufus is helping to push MMA striking in a direction all it's own. He's not only making up ground on wrestlers who've used the cage as a weapon and adapted their wrestling techniques for the last ten years. He's also underscoring just how different MMA striking can be from actual kickboxing, MMA striking's combat sports cousin.
Roufus understands this isn't K-1. The rules of MMA and the reality of the cage are helping to evolve a system of striking that is much more than kickboxing + takedown defense. And it when it comes to being innovative by taking advantage of available resources, Roufus appears to be doing and succeeding at something no other coach in MMA has even considered.